Adventures in Cartooning: An Interview with James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost

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In First Second’s Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics, a clever princess, brave knight (and his loveably not-so-brave steed, Edward), magical elf and greedy dragon all join forces to make an engaging, funny story out of the process of comics creation. Ideal for kids who want to make their own comics or those who just like a good laugh, Adventures in Cartooning is also a friendly, accessible introduction to the basics of comic book storytelling for adults looking to incorporate graphic novels into the classroom.

Adventures in Cartooning was co-created by Eisner Award-winner James Sturm (The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow), who also founded the Center for Cartoon Studies, and two of his former students, up and coming cartoonists Alexis Frederick-Frost and Andrew Arnold. The “three-headed cartooning monster” spoke to BookShelf about their book, as well as the possibilities inherent in cartooning for would-be creators of all skill levels. 

BookShelf: What inspired you to create this book?

James Sturm: Ed Emberley was a big influence. He makes these charming drawing books that show how to construct all kinds of stuff (cars, animals, monsters, etc). We wanted to try to break down the mechanics of cartooning in way that was equally as simple and engaging.

BookShelf: In Adventures in Cartooning, the “adventure” refers to both the act of cartooning and the story that is being told. How does one inform the other?

James Sturm: By having the how-to aspect of the book be part of the knight's adventure, the lessons become more urgent and exciting. For instance, the knight needs to figure out how to arrange word balloons in the right order so he can find the dragon!

Andrew Arnold: We also incorporated things like descending panels (for when the knight is going down a hill) or staggered panels (to show the knight sinking) that indirectly instruct the reader. We really tried to squeeze as many cartooning lessons into Adventures in Cartooning as possible, even when they’re not as noticeable!

BookShelf: Adventures in Cartooning emphasizes the fact that you do not have to be a skilled artist or writer in order to draw a great cartooning adventure, even though cartooning involves both drawing and writing. What do you need to get started?  Can cartooning help you to develop drawing and writing skills?

James Sturm: All you need to get started is a little bit of confidence and a pencil and paper. Too often children abandon drawing because they think they can't "draw well." Hopefully Adventures in Cartooning will help provide a little confidence and inspiration for kids. We chose a very simple visual vocabulary (again, inspired by Emberley) to show that you can construct an exciting story without superb rendering skills. And yes, cartooning absolutely helps develop drawing and writing skills.

Andrew Arnold: One idea! One thought! One image! Any person can take one of these things (or all!), roll with it, and turn into a delightful story. There are unlimited possibilities with comics; all it takes is a bit of courage to see where your ideas, thoughts, and images can take you. One other quality that shouldn’t be overlooked: PATIENCE. Every cartoonist needs it – great comics aren’t made overnight!

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BookShelf: What response have you seen to Adventures in Cartooning from kids?

James Sturm: My kids (8 and 6) really enjoyed it which is thrilling to me. Eva (my oldest) even contributed two pages!

Alexis Frederick-Frost: The response from kids has been good so far.  I have received some really awesome thank you notes from kids who were at school presentations.  You should see some of the comics they draw!

We're doing events at libraries and schools in addition to appearances at bookstores.  During the presentation we do demonstrations, read from the book, and use a short handout (available here) to create characters from shapes and then use those characters to start making comics.  It's pretty interactive, sometimes the kids draw shapes and we turn them into characters, and sometimes they suggest things for us to draw.  We talk about using panels and story structure but really the main goal is to get the kids drawing and excited about making comics.

BookShelf: Are you really a three-headed monster, as the book jacket suggests?

James Sturm: It is true we are. Alexis is asleep right now. Andrew is eating garlic bread which makes his breath really stinky.

Alexis Frederick-Frost: A three-headed cartooning monster is actually a pretty accurate way to describe our process. When looking back at the project, it's hard to tell where someone’s influence begins and the others’ ends. At the beginning of the project, when we knew the book was going to happen, we met for an epic brainstorming session in the Center for Cartoon Studies library. There we came up with a very basic plot outline and the major characters. Then, each of us thumbnailed out the entire story. So the final story was rewritten or re-drawn three or four times. Ideas that were introduced in one version were expanded upon or discarded in later versions. Each time they changed a little: Edward got larger, the onion got smaller and so on. Once the story was set we all pitched in to get the job done: the tasks of penciling, inking and coloring were shared between us.

BookShelf: You have all been involved in creating comics at an academic level – either as students or teachers at the Center for Cartoon Studies. How does working with comics creation at an elementary level differ from working with it at the graduate level?

James Sturm: With Adventures in Cartooning, the challenge was to break the mechanics of cartooning down in language that would be understandable to a 6-year-old. With CCS students, most come to the program with an appreciation of the medium. As an instructor, you are responding to the work the students are creating as opposed to Adventures in Cartooning where you are assuming the reader is starting from scratch.

BookShelf: What would you like educators and librarians to know about Adventures in Cartooning?

James Sturm: That this book was designed to enable and encourage early readers to explore cartooning and visual story telling. And for kids who have no interest in drawing, there is a darn good adventure story for them to enjoy! This is the book I would have loved to have discovered when I was still in single digits.

Alexis Frederick-Frost: If there is one thing those hours spent in the basement of the Center for Cartoon Studies stapling together stacks of photocopied self-published mini-comics taught me, it is that comics are an accessible and powerful means of self expression.  While working at the public library in Rochester NH, I often talk to kids who check out stacks and stacks of comics. Many have amazing stories to tell but don't because they feel they can't draw. The intent of Adventures in Cartooning is to show how you can make a really great comic without knowing how to draw huge biceps or manga eyes. Hopefully, more kids will feel empowered and tell more of their own stories with comics.

Andrew Arnold: I’d like them to know that first and foremost, anyone can make a great comic. The purpose of Adventures in Cartooning is to help inspire and guide kids who want to make these comics but feel they don’t have the necessary skills to do so. All it takes is a little imagination and patience!

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Adventures in Cartooning
First Second Books
ISBN: 978-1-59643-369-4